Tag Archives: Prison

Review of Beah’s “A Long Way Gone” and Gantos’s “Hole in My Life”

Does a book need to be sad in order to be moving? Must the reader suffer alongside the writers/characters in order to learn from them? I’ve been asking myself these questions since finishing two of the texts that have been taught in my school’s 9th grade ELA classes in past years. Both texts were nonfiction (we have our fiction texts locked down) and apparently have been popular in previous years so, despite the depressing blurbs, I was optimistic about reading both.

I’m now sitting with both texts, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah and Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, under my belt, but I’m having trouble picturing myself reading either text with a class of students. I’m well aware that they both have value; let me make that perfectly clear. However, nowadays, I’m reading things with a mind to how I would teach that text and what meanings students might be able to extract, and I’m not confident I got anything out of them other than all-consuming sadness. That takes me back to my original questions: does a book need to be sad in order to be moving and must the reader suffer alongside the writers/characters in order to learn from them? Additionally, considering the lesson we expect young readers to extract from this exceedingly sad text, is it possible to learn the same lesson from a more positive and uplifting text?

Spare me the lectures, please. I fully understand that just because something is sad doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read it. We all know that my patronage of WWII and Holocaust books and documentaries likely has me on a CIA watch list. I continue to seek out these stories in spite of the fact that I know they will have a sad ending because they are still saturated with meaning and lessons on tolerance, injustice, kindness, forgiveness, and so on and so forth. Similarly, I can see that both of these nonfiction texts address juvenile justice in controversial and meaningful ways, ways that might appeal to the readers that will be in my classroom. In these texts, they may find solace, familiarity, wisdom of experience, and guidance, all of which would make these texts more than valid reads for these students. So I’m on board! No, I didn’t enjoy either of them very much, but maybe that’s because I’m not the target audience. No, I couldn’t relate, but that is an incomprehensible blessing that only reflects my privileged life. Now that I’ve ruminated, my original, rhetorical questions seem to have morphed into the more concrete question of why can’t we just read something happy?!? If we read both of these books plus To Kill A Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet, these kids might just wonder whether happy books actually exist! Color me selfish, but I want to read something happy!!

Anyway, let’s talk about the texts:

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.

In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.

 

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.
In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

This one was difficult for the most obvious reason: the subject of child soldiers and war is horrific. It was extremely thoughtful and well-written, clearly being the result of a short life full of experience.

A Long Way Gone was the better of the two. It was painfully sad and also distant in a way that meant that I, as a white American woman, couldn’t really understand or even imagine the writer’s experiences. Nonetheless, it was extremely thoughtful and well-written, showing that it was the result of a short lifetime of horrid and impactful experiences.

Hole in My Life was unpleasant, not because of the subject matter, but because of the writing. I couldn’t stand the narrator, and I’m not talking about the 19-year-old Gantos. I mean the post-prison, writing-about-my-experiences Gantos, who narrated his choices and actions in ways that seemed to romanticize a lifetime of arrogant and ignorant actions and choices. I was reminded of Christopher McCandless from Krakauer’s Into the Wild, whose ignorance of his privilege and reckless desire for adventure directly led to his death. Gantos kindly admits that it was his own stupidity that landed him in prison, but his honesty didn’t negate his unlikability, for me at least. I have no desire to teach this one, but we’ll see.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Am I the only one feeling overwhelmed by sad books lately?

 

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Combo: Review of Myers’ “Monster” and Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary (…)”

I’m doing a combo review today, partly because I’m tearing through these books like a bag of Peanut Butter M&Ms, and partly because I don’t have too terribly much to say about a few of these books. But first, the obligatory synopsis courtesy of Goodreads:

This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.

Fade In: Interior: Early Morning In Cell Block D, Manhattan Detention Center.

Steve (Voice-Over)
Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I’ll call it what the lady prosecutor called me … Monster.

Monster was one of those books that I’m convinced could truly help readers of the right audience, but the fit would have to be juuuust right. The story is told as a screenplay as the main character, Steven, goes through his trial.

The good news is that the story includes journal entries here and there, which give chilling depictions of Steven’s time in juvie and these journals could easily speak to readers who are facing similar circumstances or choices. The bad news is that the story also includes transcripts of courtroom proceedings and, thus, a lot of legalese. The jargon regularly overwhelmed the story and, although it offered readers a glimpse of a life spent fighting for freedom, the transcript style was far less convincing and relatable than the journals. I was filled with sadness for Steven while simultaneously being utterly unsure about what happened in that convenience store. I think this was on purpose, since Myers wanted readers to decide whether Steven was guilty based on evidence, just like a juror. I just finished with the stong hope that none of my students ever endure circumstances like those, which was a powerful and meaningful take-away.

On the one hand, I think this would be a valuable read for students who may be struggling with friend groups or decisions about life paths, but on the other hand I think the legal emphasis could easily overwhelm and discourage that same student. Regardless, I was not the intended audience and that was painfully obvious throughout my reading, but it didn’t prevent me from seeing value for other readers.

Another recent completion was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Synopsis:

Born poor and hydrocephalic, Arnold Spirit survives brain surgery. But his enormous skull, lopsided eyes, profound stuttering, and frequent seizures target him for abuse on his Indian reservation. Protected by a formidable friend, the book-loving artist survives childhood. And then – convinced his future lies off the rez – the bright 14-year-old enrolls in an all-white high school 22 miles away.

That synopsis manages to symplify a book that is anything but simple. I completed this one via Audiobook and, I’ll just be honest, while I appreciated that the author narrated it himself, his voice was distracting. It was some sort of stoner/dracula/Bob Dylan combo, that served no purpose but to distract me with every passing word.

Aside from that, the story was so unbelievably depressing at times and hopeful at others that I was just exhausted. This kid, Arnold, has to take the cake for the most pity-enducing story, what with his physical deformaties, mental handicaps, extreme poverty, alcoholic parents, bullying neighbors, racist classmates, friend turned ex-friend, murdered pet, and the fact that loved ones keep dropping like flies. I can understand an author seiezing one or even a few of these tropes and writing about them, but all of them?! Are you trying to make me die of sadness overload?

Don’t get me wrong, the book had beautiful, profound, stunningly hopeful moments that really gave hope to readers, but make no mistake it beat you into the ground before it even thought about picking you up and giving you a reason to smile. I have a number of friends who love this book, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that this is one of those books that was ruined by the narration, and I’ll certainly have it in my classroom for students who might be enduring any of the countless hardships Arnold Spirit navigates with relentless humor and positivity. It is just as uplifting as it is devastating; such is life.

I have a lot more reviews to complete, but I also have a few more books for my summer classes and those take prescedence, so I hope you all will be patient with me. More to come soon, but feel free to follow me on Goodreads for quicker updates. Happy summer readings!!

 

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L: Review of Nova Ren Suma’s “The Walls Around Us”

I like books that pick a “thing” and just run with it, even if that “thing” isn’t necessarily my thing. Dinosaurs? Bring it on. Horses? OK, see you there. Focusing on a specific theme can maximize upon immediate appeal for horse- and dinosaur-loving readers, and it can offer insight for casual amateurs, like myself. However, themes should inform, never isolate, the novice reader, and I’m afraid that’s the vibe I got from Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us.

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?

Did you notice the casual mention of dancing in the teaser above? It was all, “Nbd, there’s dancing.” Let me set the record straight: this novel is all about dancing. In the recipe that is The Walls Around Us, there’s like 1 teaspoon of murder to 6 cups of ballet references. We learn about the outfits, the hairstyles, the feelings onstage vs. the feelings offstage, the injuries, the tricks of the trade, and of course, the official names of the dance moves in all their French glory.

Now, I took dance classes in middle and high school, so I assumed I’d be fine. I can picture a pas de bourrée just as well as the next reader, and the murder mystery set in a Juvenile Detention Center really upped the appeal, so I took the bait. The dance-to-murder ratios, however, that were present in the teaser were essentially reversed in the story, so that my interest in the prison/murder plot line was overshadowed by the boring “Dance Life” story.

Aside from the focus on ballet, I found the storytelling to be a bit drawn out; the perspective swapped between two central characters, one of whom (the prisoner) seemed to spend her first 5 chapters telling the exact same story in different ways. The suspense built and built with each retelling of the same few moments, so that when explanation was finally given, it was utterly anti-climactic. It felt like an afterthought on the author’s part, as though Suma focused so heavily on the bizarre nature of those first few moments that she spent too little time coming up with a valid explanation for her readers. It was interesting, then exhausting, then disappointing.

My other qualm with The Walls Around Us was that it was an entirely realistic mystery novel until, BAM!, things got paranormal. I love paranormal things, so that is not my issue; the issue was that it seemed like another desperate grab for resolution on the author’s part, as though she had cooked up a scenario that could only be resolved through paranormal intervention. I’m convinced that Suma had the bare bones of a good story that she then insulated with literary packing-peanuts, just words and moments that took up space. “More dance references! Let me retell that story one more time! Hey, let’s throw some paranormal stuff in there!” No, Suma. You ruined it.

Good things? It was an original idea, I think. I haven’t read anything like it before, so it had that going for it. The writing was also crafted so that readers were often challenged to feel pity  for convicted felons. That takes some skill.

Otherwise, I do not recommend this novel to anyone; that’s not to say you wouldn’t enjoy it, though. Read it or don’t. See if I care.

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